Guatemala is the single largest contributor of refugees to the United States. A recent poll shows partisan divisions regarding support for Central American refugees, with the latest Gallup poll showing 83 percent Democratic support compared to just 38 percent of Republicans support.
The U.S has an obligation to help Guatemalan refugees not only under UNHCR agreements, but out of sheer decency. At one point, a U.S. company owned nearly half the land, all the communications, utilities, transportation and seaports of Guatemala. By the 1950s, only 10 percent of the land in Guatemala was available for 90 percent of the population.
In the presidential election of ’51, the U.S. lost control of the government through the democratic election of Jacobo Árbenz. His administration seized 400,000 acres and redistributed it amongst Guatemalan farmers. To anger UFC more, he compensated the company the value it had assessed for its own tax purposes.
In 1954, the U.S. led a coup against Árbenz and replaced him with Col. Carlos Castillo Armas. The conflict was largely psychological; however, U.S. planes bombed strategic targets for Armas. In one such mission, a Lockheed P38M Lightning dropped napalm on a British freighter, costing the CIA $1 million in compensation.
Armas was well known for his dedication to U.S. interests, and was quoted saying to then-Vice President Richard Nixon, “Tell me what you want me to do, and I will do it.” Armas manipulated the government, aligned it with U.S. interests and forced it into complete dependence on U.S. aid. Armas ultimately returned all the land seized by Arbenz to the United Fruit Co.
Armas was assassinated in 1957. What followed was over 30 years of civil war, which cost Guatemala over 200,000 lives. An investigative report revealed U.S.-sponsored “death squads” committed up to 93 percent of all known human rights violations. The Guatemalan army itself recognized that it destroyed more than 440 Mayan villages.
Two presidents have since apologized for U.S. involvement in human rights violations in Guatemala. In 1999, President Bill Clinton apologized for the U.S. involvement in the civil war. In 2010, President Barrack Obama apologized for the U.S. involvement in infecting Guatemalans with STDs in the 1940s for research.
Nowadays, as refugees arrive at our door, they are met with indifference and cruelty. Parents are separated from their children. All refugees entering sans a port of entry are now criminalized, further backing up a broken immigration system. While Trump forges ahead with his “America First” policies, it seems his administration remains in a state of amnesia regarding the last several decades of U.S policy in Latin America.
It is important to remember what our nation did to Central America. Lest we all forget, these refugees are here because we were there.